Recent UHA grad Andre Stiles ('13) reflects upon his semester abroad in Florence, Italy and how the experiences and skills gained from study abroad have opened a door of new opportunities. Read on to learn more about Andre in our alumni series: "Where are they now?"
Name: Andre Stiles
Major: Architectural Engineering Technology
Minor: Business Management
Graduation year: 2013
Study abroad location & term: Florence, Italy. Spring Semester 2012
Your next step after graduation: Graduate School at Columbia University studying Preservation Design in the school of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.
Please tell us a little about your previous international experience.
Before studying abroad, my only experience outside of the USA was a trip I did in high school with an exchange program in Germany. I was there for 3 weeks and stayed with a family living in Ulm, Bavaria. I had to go to school, do chores, and live as an everyday German teenager. I was also able to travel around Germany and see the amazing history and landscapes that seemed so different than anything I had encountered in America. I was happy to have had this experience abroad because it taught me at a young age the importance of learning about culture, and that there is so much more that this world has to offer.
The benefits from studying abroad are difficult to write down in ink because they are different for everyone. Obviously, there are the benefits like becoming an expert traveler, becoming more aware of your surroundings, and getting a better grasp on world language. But I’m talking about the ones that effect your everyday life in ways that may not be so self-evident. For example, you subconsciously learn how to adapt quickly to new conditions, whether that be trying new foods, meeting new people, or moving to a new city. You learn how to manage your money in a way that makes you extremely mature for your age. (Seriously, a weekend trip to any big city for under $100 including food, lodging, and sightseeing is completely doable). Your time management skills become ridiculous, and what some might see as OCD, you see as an adventure. (Trust me, you tell your friends back home you did a 1 ½ day trip to London, saw every major attraction from Portobello market to the London Eye, saw two Broadway shows, mastered the tube, had time for high tea at Harrods, didn’t miss your flight there or back, and still made it home for your Ancient Roman History exam and see if they believe you).
The little things that used to bother you become irrelevant, because now you see every day as an epic journey and there is no time to waste dwelling on the negatives. You will become obsessed with some food item which, in turn, will change your entire diet back home. (For me all I wanted when I first got to Italy was barbecue sauce and all I want now is pesto.... pesto on literally everything.) But most importantly, you can see a world that you never thought possible. You can look at anything and understand why it is important and beautiful. You see history and art in the most unlikely of places and every second becomes a part of your legacy. You are humbled by knowledge as the world around you becomes so much smaller. Every experience, every relationship, and every single day is a gift that should not be left unopened.
Tell us a little about the next chapter of your life after UHA:
In the fall I’ll be attending my dream school, Columbia University in New York City! There I will be getting my Masters in Preservation Design and I cannot be more excited. It’s amazing to look back and see how basically all the factors that helped me get into Columbia were skills related to studying abroad-- skills I had to use to get abroad, be abroad, and reflect on my abroad experience. The program I signed up with for studying abroad was not handed to me on a silver platter. It took hours of work, tediously making sure all of my classes fit. Sure, there were some easier options, but the most important things in life are the ones worth fighting for! This drive helped me through the most tedious process you will ever go through in your entire life which is applying to graduate programs…. it’s literally a full-time job.
Studying abroad for anyone is an amazing learning experience, but I do have a bias for people in the architectural fields as we get something extra out of the whole package. It is one thing to learn about the history of architecture in a book, but a completely different benefit when you experience it in person. You gain a whole new appreciation for structure and design that can be jaded by a sedentary learning environment. You get new opinions, new ideas, and see completely different approaches to design issues. Respect is now a staple in your vocabulary and is used in so many aspects of world architecture. Respect for the environment, culture, history, present, and future of the sites and buildings you are designing. You can see better the way in which a space will be inhabited and how using a certain, let’s say, material can make or break a project. See, in our American institutions we can sometimes get selfish, greedy, and lazy in our designs. It is easy to lose sight of what makes architecture such an amazing profession in the first place. In our corporate America we see $$ dollar signs but there is so much more to the human experience than money. As I said, every day is a gift, and the buildings we live in should help us to respect that. This is one of many concepts that is hard to see past if you don’t study abroad and get a different perspective. Overall, I was able to become a better designer and this was another step in the right direction toward graduate school.
Lastly, when I returned from studying abroad I didn’t just simply say “Oh cool! I’m back in America, let’s go to Wendy’s and order a supersized baconator”…. (even though I did). I put my new skills to the test and started using every day to the fullest. I took history and historic preservation courses, I blogged and reflected on my experience (http://stilesabroad.blogspot.com/2012/01/welcome-toflorence.html), and then I traveled some more around America to get an even wider variety of opinions on what architecture means to different people. When I was able to present my lecture on the architecture of Italy in the fall of 2012, I saw a side of myself that I had never seen before. I no longer had stage fright, I was truly psyched about explaining everything I had experienced, and, most of all, I was eager to get more people excited and involved in studying abroad. I wanted everyone to see what I had seen, and for them to get a worldly perspective on what it is to be an architect. This newfound confidence was the final push for me to get into my dream school for graduate studies, and the same can happen for anyone if you set your mind and your heart to it.
What would you want to say to UHA students who are thinking about going abroad?
Studying abroad is one of the best decisions I have ever made in my entire life, and I know that sounds cheesy and something you expect to hear, but it has truly changed my life for the better. For my career, it has opened up numerous doors and was a huge factor in my acceptance at Columbia University. Then, for my everyday life, I am instantly more cultured than a good majority of the people in America who have no clue what is going on in the world around them. It may seem scary at first and that is why so many people don’t go. They are comfortable here in their little bubble, but once you step off that plane in the destination of your choosing, you won’t believe what the world has in store for you! So suck it up, think of the place you have always dreamed of going, make sure all your classes work, pack your bags, and embark on one of the most amazing journeys you will ever have in your lifetime.
Also if you ask anyone who graduated from college what their biggest regret was, a good majority will say never studying abroad; if you ask a student who studied abroad what their biggest regret was, they’ll say not studying abroad longer. If that doesn’t put it into perspective, I don’t know what will.
Any other thoughts or advice?
Wherever you go, go with all of your heart, and you will not be disappointed!
Interested in spending a semester off-campus? Contact Susan Carey in the Study Abroad Office: email@example.com
Or visit our official website: www.hartford.edu/studyabroad